How the Chernobyl nuclear disaster led this woman to catch a wave

by Todd Neff

With wave power, it all seems pretty straightforward.

Waves come from the wind. Wind power is already a big-time clean-energy source (producing about 2.5 percent of the world’s electricity and growing). Water is 784 times denser than air, providing a lot more energy per cubic meter. Plus, people tend to live near coasts where the waves are: in the United States, for example, more than half the population lives within 50 miles of the ocean and all that potential energy.

It’s not straightforward. Complexities abound, ranging from where to site wave power installations (Offshore? Underwater? Free-floating or anchored?) to how to transmit the power they generate. And while not trivial, that’s the easy part. The hard part has to do with actually harnessing those wind-driven waves.

Wind blows in one direction, a relatively consistent, unidirectional power source, at least in the span of a few seconds. Waves are up and down and back and forth by nature. You can’t just miniaturize a wind turbine, sink it in the drink and fire up a toaster with water-born electrons.

So when Inna Braverman tells you that the company she co-founded — Tel Aviv, Israel-based Eco Wave Power — has come up with a really good way to harness those waves and fire up those toasters, know that it’s a big deal.

Eco Wave Power’s system uses boat-shaped floaters on levers. Imagine a rock drummer’s base pedal, but one in which the mallet drives the foot rather than the opposite. The floaters, well, float, bobbing up and down as waves roll in and back out. Flexible arms connect them to existing piers, poles, breakwaters, jetties or other robust onshore or floating platform. Critically, there’s another piece — hydraulic pistons. With each wave, pistons push high-pressure fluid to a generator onshore, which converts that pressure to electrical power.

That use of hydraulics is the masterstroke. Doing so lets Eco Wave Power move the electronic equipment producing the actual juice away from the salty water providing the force. That, Braverman and colleagues say, makes the system more robust than ones that do the energy harvesting and electricity generation at the water’s edge (or, more commonly, in the water itself).

Getting this all to work has taken years of engineering and re-engineering and a whole lot of determination. Braverman’s background has something to do with it. She was born in Ukraine, just two weeks before the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded. Radiation bled into Cherkassy, where she lived.

“Most people don’t feel they’ve lost something due to pollution, but my background made it personal for me,” she told Wired. “Our technology could replace existing traditional technologies that have their own risks.”

They started in 2011 at the Institute of Hydromechanics at the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev. In 2012, Eco Wave Power installed a system on two breakwaters in the Black Sea. Jaffa Port in Israel came next, in 2014, and it still serves as their R&D site. That year, they signed an agreement with the government of Gibraltar for a 5 megawatt commercial site designed to satisfy 15 percent of Gibraltar’s energy needs; it went live in May 2016. Now they’re working on an installation ten times larger in China. Chile, Mexico and the United Kingdom are up next.

Will Eco Wave Power’s design prevail over the scores of other designs splashing about the wave power market? Maybe, and maybe not. And it may not matter. Unlike with wind power, wave-power designs are probably not a winner-take-all game. There may emerge no single dominant form like the ubiquitous modern wind turbine, which has proven itself to be the very best way to convert moving air into electrons. The nature of waves changes is more varied depending on location, prevailing winds, currents and other factors. So don’t be surprised if you soon see an Eco Wave Power installation at a pier near you.

Inna Braverman is one of 60 masterminds slated for Brain Bar Budapest 2017, part of a stellar lineup of the thinkers, creators, innovators, doers on tap for this year’s festival.

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